Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:
“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”
The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.
In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.
I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.
People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.
None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.
In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.
In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.
In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”
Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.
Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.
Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.
That is the point.